Women, SF Spectacle and the Mise-En-Scène of Space Adventure in the Star Wars Franchise

By Tasker, Yvonne | Science Fiction Film and Television, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Women, SF Spectacle and the Mise-En-Scène of Space Adventure in the Star Wars Franchise


Tasker, Yvonne, Science Fiction Film and Television


American sf cinema has long provided a fantasy space in which some variation in gender conventions is not only possible but even expected. Departure from normative gender scripts signals visually and thematically that we have been transported to another space or time, suggesting that female agency and female heroism in particular is a by-product of elsewhere - or, more precisely, what we might term elsewhen. As a consequence, perhaps, sf franchises such as the Alien (US 1979-) and Terminator (US 1984-) films became staples of genre and of feminist film criticism from the 1980s onwards, with scholars drawn to female protagonists who are read and re-read as either complex and transgressive or as superficial instances of commercial cinema's response to developments in gender culture. It is noteworthy that these female heroines in 1980s and 1990s cinema were deployed in films that centred thematically on an opposition between human and alien or human and machine, displacing preoccupations of gendered or racial differences onto sf's defining preoccupation with what it is to be human.

Since 1977, however, the Star Wars films have imagined space adventure largely around boys and men. While Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia character demonstrated the vitality of supporting female figures in adventure narratives from the outset, the emphasis of subsequent episodes was firmly on melodramatic themes of male redemption. As Christine Cornea observes, 'there is really no question as to who rules this empire and who has privileged access to the mystical "force", as these powers are passed from father to son' (115). For Cornea and other sf scholars, these are fundamentally patriarchal storyworlds. The Star Wars franchise centres on the staging of vast imperial power struggles played out through a master/apprentice relationship and intimate contests between father and son; both effectively stand in for and supplement rebellions against authority, whether familial or galactic. As Cornea notes, scholars have tended to critique these films as childish and conservative with respect to race, gender and the broader contexts of US politics.

In saying this, I refer to onscreen protagonists rather than audiences in cinemas, since, as Megen de Bruin-Molé (2018) argues, girls and women engaged with Star Wars fandom from the beginning of the franchise. Moroever, as Carolyn Cocca (2016) explores, the larger transmedia franchise of comics and novels gives far greater play to female agency. Thus the relationship of Star Wars to feminism is renewed, rather than initiated, by the more recent instalments in the franchise - The Force Awakens (Abrams US 2015), Rogue One (Edwards US 2016) and The Last Jedi (Johnson US 2017) - which have centred on more complex, or at least more explicitly heroic, female protagonists. While sceptical of the possibilities of genre cinema to present more than one woman at the centre of a fiction, So Mayer sees the Star Wars universe as 'leading the way' in a 'minor resurgence of women in genre films' (33). Taken together, these recent iterations of the franchise suggest that it is possible to shift the association of space combat with boys' own adventure stories. The construction of Rey (Daisy Ridley) in The Force Awakens as an intuitive pilot and engineer able to quickly master machines, as well as a Jedi-apprentice-in-waiting, points to the possibility of incorporating a female hero without reference to explanatory paternal backstories or intimations of essential femininity (strategies typically exploited in mainstream cinema). This facility to rewrite, or, perhaps more accurately, refocus the conventions of the series stands in contrast to the cinematic reboot of Star Trek (Abrams US 2009), a venture which reproduces a good deal of the problematic gender hierarchies of the earlier series and film texts.1

This article, then, seeks to explore the gendered work of the Star Wars franchise within the generic frame of sf. …

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